A Government for We, the People, Not Vested Interests: Recommendations for a 2021 President

September 25, 2020
John Klossner
Genna Reed
Senior Analyst

Update 1/6/21: We worked with UCI CLEANR to publish a fuller set of recommendations in the Environmental Law Reporter in January 2021 which can be found in this PDF.

Holding a government office comes with the ethical responsibility to prioritize public service over private financial gain. But with the opportunity to hold powerful government positions comes opportunities to abuse that power. The antidote to such corruption is reforms that bolster and enforce transparency, integrity, and oversight.

UCS and the University of California, Irvine School of Law Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources (CLEANR) released a fact sheet this week offering recommendations to address the broad set of issues related to conflicts of interest (COIs) based on conversations held at a 2019 roundtable with science policy experts held at UCS’ Washington, DC office.

In May 2019, UCS and UCI Law, CLEANR convened science policy experts to discuss solutions to challenges facing government scientific integrity, including conflicts of interest.

Where federal policy decisions must be informed by scientific evidence, we need qualified, independent individuals who are unencumbered by conflicts of interest and able to make decisions that benefit the public. By relying on independent science, the government ensures that policy proposals are informed by evidence stemming from a credible scientific process. Processes that rely on independent science result in better policy decisions and improved public trust in those decisions. Unfortunately, financial conflicts influencing government officials have been a perennial problem for presidents, regardless of political affiliation.

The G.W. Bush administration was characterized by a well-oiled revolving door between government offices and regulated industries: officials of both intermingled their interests. According to Politico, the Obama administration hired more than 70 previously registered lobbyists, and several agency appointees left to work on the same issue within industry. President Trump issued an executive order on ethics in January 2017, but since then has departed from norms by appointing fewer people for science positions than in previous administrations, reducing the government’s oversight capacity, and allowing agencies to redefine conflicts for advisory committee members, for example.

There have been too many policies informed by science and aimed at protecting the public good that have been watered down, delayed, or discarded altogether because a person in power was compelled by interests other than those of the American people. It’s time to end this dangerous trend.

Here’s what the president and federal agencies can do to eliminate conflicts of interest in policy decisions:

Ensure that federal officials, including the Executive Office of the President, have access to impartial scientific advice.

  • Agencies should ensure that conflict-of-interest policies bar political appointees from lobbying their agencies af­ter they leave government service for the duration of the administration in which they serve but no less than two years.
  • The president should issue an executive order requiring all science agencies that do not have an Office of the Chief Scientist to have a chief science officer; commit to filling open science leadership positions with individuals who have specialized training or experience and who meet the limits set forth by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act; and appoint a widely respected scientist to the position of sci­ence advisor to the president and nominate that person to direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Direct agencies to develop clear guidance for using peer review in scientific assessments.

  • The Office of Science and Technology Policy should direct agencies to develop clear guidance on peer review that include the following provisions:
    • Bar those with financial ties to institutions or entities potentially affected by the review—including reviewers, government contractors, and agency staff administering the process—from involvement in the peer-review process
    • Require that scientists involved in a peer review of agency scientific documents be technically qualified, and that agencies use at least one peer reviewer external to the agency whenever possible.
    • Make publicly available peer review­ers’ substantive comments on scientific documents and agency responses to those comments, while protecting the anonymity of reviewers.

Ensure that science advisory committees have a balance of relevant scientific disciplines.

  • Agencies should bar those with conflicts of interest from serving on com­mittees unless conflicts are unavoidable—for example, when an individual’s experience and technical qualifica­tions are particularly relevant to the topic the committee will address and the agency cannot identify another indi­vidual with comparable qualifications who does not have a conflict of interest.
  • Agencies should define what constitutes a conflict of interest and give examples of actions that would breach the appear­ance of impartiality. Ensure that the following do not constitute a conflict of interest for special government employees or representatives because they do not pre­clude an objective assessment of scientific information presented to a committee:
    • Taking a public position on issues or having a point of view on policy.
    • Receiving a federal research grant and other gov­ernment funding for scientific work.
    • Being a member of a scientific association, even if that association has a stated policy agenda.

Preserve independent oversight by each agency’s Office of Inspector General.

  • The president should nominate qualified individuals to lead Inspector General (IG) offices and fill vacant Senate-confirmed positions that are currently filled by acting IGs. While confirmation of a nominee is pending, the president should ensure that the acting IG is qualified for the position, as required by the Inspector General Act, and free of conflicts of interest.
  • The president should remove a Senate-confirmed IG from office only when substantial cause warrants it and provide Congress and the public with substantial justifi­cation and explanation of cause for removing an agency IG.

When people with vested political, ideological, or financial interests influence decisions, the resulting policy outcomes are less likely to serve the public interest and more likely to jeopardize the health of people and the environment. We, the people, need to advocate for change in processes that have allowed the erosion of norms and enabled political corruption to persist. These recommendations lay out a blueprint for how to begin that process in 2021 and beyond.